A cathedral with a vaulted stone ceiling, the glow of candlelight, and a remarkable musical ensemble, added together equal one outstanding artistic experience. On Feb. 27, the Orpheus Chamber Singers, under the direction of Artistic Director Donald Krehbiel, presented a program entitled The Darkness Is No Darkness in the magnificent St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in East Dallas. The venue's atmosphere, the sanctuary dimly lit by flickering candlelight and softly gleaming music stand lights, lent itself well to the mood of the program that focused on the transcendent quality of religious music throughout the centuries. More importantly, the cathedral is one of the finest places to sing in the Metroplex, as voices bounce off the highly arched stone.
The first portion of the program consisted of various religious works that set the mood. A marvelous Lux Aeterna by Swiss composer Ivo Antognini was the first selection, with its sumptuous harmonies. The title piece, The Darkness Is No Darkness was written by Judith Bingham as a companion piece to Samuel Wesley's well known anthem, Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace. The former, despite being very modern in nature, lead perfectly into the latter, its close harmonies serving as a transition to the Wesley’s sound world. The next piece was unexpected, the Prelude from Suite No. 2 in D minor BWV 1008 for solo cello. The cellist providing the solo for the Requiem, Juilliard trained Gayane Manasjan-Fullford, was given an opportunity to shine, and shine she did. Perched in the organ loft behind the congregation, she delivered a moving rendition of the Bach prelude.
The first half closed with the Renaissance era Miserere Mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri. This sublime piece of music was made even more interesting by the positioning of the quartet, which started at the nave and progressed down the aisle to the sanctuary as they sang. While only slightly distracting visually, the musical effect gave the feeling of being surrounded by the music.
The ensemble closed the program with the Requiem, Opus 9 by Maurice Duruflé. The piece is the best known of his relatively small output by the French composer, a successor to the Impressionistic composers who was steeped in the study of Gregorian chant from an early age. It is this knowledge of liturgical chant that serves as the basis for the Requiem, Duruflé modifying the lines of chant to fit modern musical notation. His peaceful and introspective setting of the Requiem text exists in three versions. The one performed by Orpheus was the 1948 version for choir and organ, adding the cello in the “Pie Jesu.” Although one might miss the hazy colors produced by the original orchestration for strings and organ, the exceptional organist Scott Dettra brought out all of the subtleties. His handling of the undulating sixteenth notes in the “Introit” was exquisite, providing a steady current atop which the voices floated.
The choir was in the organ loft, behind the audience. This, coupled with the dark sanctuary, provided an otherworldly experience in which the apparently “disembodied” voices seemed to come from above. The effect was quite magical. The singers were in top form with incredible legato lines and an exceptional range of dynamic contrast. Highlights included the climax of the “Sanctus,” the fearsome “Dies illa, dies irae,” and the angelic tones of the “In Paradisum,” which can best be describe as transcendent.
Of special note were the soloists in the Requiem: baritone Jason Awbrey, mezzo-soprano Erin Roth, and cellist Manasjan-Fullford. Awbrey is a regular soloist with Orpheus. Any chance to listen to his radiant baritone is welcome. Roth, a recent addition to the ensemble, has a voice of surprising power and emotion, although the “Pie Jesu” resembled a Verdian cry for repose rather than a subdued impressionistic plea. Still, the rendition was quite effective. Manasjan-Fullford gave yet another terrific performance on the cello.
By the end of the evening, transcendence had been reached, and the audience rose quickly to their feet to applaud the ensemble. Donald Krehbiel and the Orpheus Chamber Singers, along with the two gifted instrumentalists, managed to deliver not just an extraordinary concert, but an exceptional experience. And, that is what music is all about.